CENTCOM Commander: Unresolved Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Meant 'I Paid a Military Security Price Every Day'
When we address the imperative of achieving a just and durable peace in Israel/Palestine, no matter who’s shuttling around the region, we do right to keep the focus on the obvious: Palestinians and Israelis are the ones who need peace, because they’re the people living and dying with war.
The fact is, though, that they’re not the only ones who need a resolution to the conflict, which is why John Kerry did all that shuttling—and positing the American government as anything other than a fully invested party to the resolution process is not only dishonest but dangerous.
This was brought home at last week’s Aspen Security Forum, where the recently retired commander of CENTCOM, U.S. General James Mattis, made a remarkably blunt statement: "I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians."
CENTCOM is the U.S. Central Command, responsible for American military operations in what is considered the “central” part of the globe, covering twenty countries ranging from Afghanistan to Yemen—or, in other words, the one part of the world where the American military is a regular target. Which is to say: When the person who last served as CENTCOM’s commander says he paid “a military security price every day,” he likely has some pretty specific incidents in mind.
David Petraeus, Mattis’s predecessor, made strikingly similar comments in 2010 (and though it’s been said that he walked those comments back, if you look at the walk-back, it was really kind of more of a stand-still):
Enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the area of responsibility. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region].
It’s not just a couple of hippie soldiers who have identified the unresolved conflict as a central concern to America’s interests, and it hasn’t just been in the past couple of years. George W. Bush felt the same way. So did Condoleezza Rice. As did former Senator Dick Lugar; when Lugar was chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he called a two-state solution “critical to United States’ success in the global war on terrorism.” And of course the current President, his Vice-President, his current, previous, and one-before-last Secretaries of Defense, his National Security Adviser, and various and sundry lawmakers from both parties have all said the same.
Why have all these people said all these things? Primarily because they’ve observed the Middle East closely and know what they’re talking about—but also because the reality is that no country, and no conflict, exists in a vacuum.
The Israeli and American right like to decry the notion of “linkage” (usually said with an audible sneer), but no one is actually suggesting that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will automatically resolve the region’s other issues. It won’t magically turn Egypt into a functional democracy or Iran’s nuclear program into a vegetable garden, nor will it consign al-Qaeda, et al, to the ash heap of history. What a two-state solution can do—what all those Americans have been alluding to—is two things: Make life better for Israelis and Palestinians, and render America’s other concerns less of a burden.
The magical thinking lies not in saying that the world is interconnected, but rather in insisting that there is no overlap. Insisting that that those who recruit anti-American extremists with images of Palestinian suffering, or threaten U.S.-friendly leaders for considering normalization with Israel, or simply don’t trust American policy because they’ve seen how the U.S. privileges Israel—that these people are all somehow imaginary and can be wished away by making Israeli-American ties even tighter. That the just-retired commander of CENTCOM is delusional when he says his civilian leadership’s policies meant his troops “paid a military security price every day.”
Israelis and Palestinians need peace and deserve to live in security. That is and should always be the primary goal of any negotiation process.
But John Kerry isn’t negotiating a friend’s divorce out of the kindness of his heart. He and his President know what John Mattis and David Patraeus (and Biden, and Bush, and Rice, and the other Rice, and…) also know: Israeli-Palestinian peace would help make American lives (not least, American soldiers) safer.
That’s not linkage. That’s common sense.